The Well-Tended Garden: the story that wrote its own ending

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I have taken a hiatus from social media for the past ten days to knuckle down to publishing my next story from The Purana Qila Stories series. I had delayed it for reasons that were not clear to myself until today, when I realized what was missing. I revised my ending and restructured the story, impelled by a logic that I could not even articulate to myself, but which just felt right.

When I wrote the last sentence, there was a sense of relief that comes with a story that has righted itself, like that moment of ease you get riding a bike, when gravity, motion, weight and direction work together to get you where you want to go, and that infernal front wheel stops wobbling. It is undoubtedly odd that the creative process is mystifying even to the writer. It has always made me feel slightly sheepish, as if I cannot fully take credit for my own writing (I have felt this as a child), because it comes from I know not where; this can also be nerve-wracking, because if I don’t understand fully where it came from in the first place, there is always that fear that I will not be able to summon it again. But then, I sit down to write, and the words take over. It is as if my subconscious is merrily conversing with the world, and leaving my conscious being out of it, as if to say “You wouldn’t understand, just stay out of the way.”

I think this is an explanation as to why there have been many times I have not been able to admire the artist, but have loved his/her work, as if the creative self has a whole different personality that speaks to me, when its owner may be a boor. I’m thinking of some early 20th century chauvinistic British poets, in particular, who were cads to their wives and drank themselves into the grave but wrote poetry that could make you weep.

The creative process and the fundamental schism at its heart are eternally glorified by Michelangelo’s painting on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel: The Creation of Adam. One Being (God) is passing the spark of life/inspiration into the other (Adam), but it is worth noting that their outstretched fingers do not touch. There is a vast, insurmountable distance between Creator and created captured in that small blank space.

What inspires you, and what surprises you about your own writing/art creation? Do you feel in control at all times, or does the creative process lead you? Do you fully live your art, or is it something you nurture in the hidden depths of you, that people who know you rarely glimpse? Do you like who you are when you write? Do you like who you are when you don’t?

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Keeping it short and sweet

Magnifying Glass

Magnifying Glass (Photo credit: Auntie P)

I’ve been thinking about why the short story form really appeals to me lately, particularly after reading a piece at Salon today about how the form has failed to catch on in this era of digital publishing. It’s a little surprising, given that the short story is a greater respecter of time in what has become a hectic, multi-tasking and distracted world. I suppose the article restores my faith in the attention span of humans: we apparently prefer to read long books on our ereaders, perhaps only in snippets at a time. What is more surprising to me is that a full 41% of readers are actually perusing full-length fiction on their phones. Bravo to the patient and near-sighted reader who can make it through Infinite Jest on a smart phone. Extra points for reading the footnotes that way.

I got to thinking about the full-length novel vs the short story. The full-length novel in print form declares your love of reading unambiguously. I love a doorstep-sized book as much as the next reader: they make a great paper weight, look impressive under your arm, and once in a while they spin a tale that keeps you happily trapped for weeks in the thickets of an intricate story. Vanity Fair. War and Peace. A Suitable Boy. The weightier the tome, the more respect they seem to confer upon the reader, as if your IQ can be measured in page numbers.

But I also love a well-told short story, and I have to believe in the value of this medium, because that is what I write. I started The Purana Qila Stories series, because while a novel must hold your hand between the events of separate plot lines, answering questions faithfully and guiding the reader carefully, a series of interconnected but nonlinear short stories says, “Wake up! Watch where you step! There are floorboards missing.” They challenge you to weave back and forth, to recall what you previously read about a minor character and a small action that may have significant repercussions when magnified by the passing of time or change in geography. They are a reminder that neither reader nor author is omniscient, that there may be a gap in our knowledge of a character, a mystery that is not revealed, and that life goes on in between the stories. They are prose poems, giving us just enough information to capture the essence of a moment, a feeling or a fictional person, without meeting the reader’s every expectation.

The short story is an indulgence, allowing me to dip into some alternative universes, while respecting my time. Some are arresting: Kafka‘s The Metamorphosis, which my elementary school teacher read to my class when we were seven or eight. Some haunting: Jhumpa Lahiri‘s story collection, The Interpreter of Maladies. Or delightful: The Just-So Stories by Kipling.

The written short story is a fairly modern concept, just a blink of an eye in human history. I researched its origins and found a fascinating article in Prospect Magazine by William Boyd about the origins of the short story in print. (Of course, short stories have been passed down in oral traditions since humans first spoke, and illustrated versions have been known to decorate a cave or two.) However, the rise of a literate class with disposable income in the 19th century propelled the rise of magazines and periodicals and drove the demand for short fiction.

Perhaps there is another format that is uniquely suited to the digital age, and perhaps I’m just a 19th century kind of girl. I would to hear about your favorites and what it was about the short story format that made the telling so effective. Do you often wish a good short story was turned into a novel? Or is there a novel that you think would have been better told as a short story?

Lastly, are you glad I went with a respectable title for this post, instead of the first one that came to mind: “We love short shorts”?

Got that awful song in my head now, gah.